Former Springbok hooker Owen Nkumane is probably one of the better people to ask for SuperRugby tips because he spends much of his life snooping around the franchises in his role as a SuperSport analyst and commentator.
But even someone as knowledgeable as Nkumane believes tipping the winner – even of just the South African Conference – would require calling into service a crystal ball. Typically for a front-ranker, Nkumane has little time for things as flighty as guessing games and prefers to concentrate on the reality of the different franchises’ strengths and weaknesses.
And as a former Lions star, the 1998 UK tourist has most to say about his former team and is particularly interested to see whether they will employ the same brand of expansive rugby that took them to the Currie Cup final.
“I think it’s an exciting season for the Lions because they’ve got the money and the players now, so in a way there can be no excuses and that brings pressure. The element of surprise has gone and I think they’ll need to be a bit more structured and not try and force the issue with ball-in-hand. In a way they might have to be more conservative, they need to get the right balance in their play.
“They’ve got what it takes to break defences so they mustn’t chance it on attack. If they have a three-versus-two, they know how to convert it, whereas other teams will maybe try and force it,” Nkumane cautioned.
Another crucial factor in determining how successful the Lions are will be how coach Johan Ackermann uses flyhalves Marnitz Boshoff and Elton Jantjies.
“That’s going to be crucial and he needs to get the balance right there, like when it comes to running the ball or not. And conditioning and when to peak will also be vital. The Lions play for nine straight weeks and you don’t want the players hitting the wall in April and May. If you do too much now, then the guys will be gatvol in four weeks time,” Nkumane said.
The Bulls and Cheetahs were both major disappointments for Nkumane last season and he sees only one of those franchises having a chance this year.
“The Bulls lost games they should have won and couldn’t get any points away from home last year. But I think they are dark horses.
“The Cheetahs had a wonderful season in 2013 but didn’t come close to competing last year, and their defence is their Achilles heel,” Nkumane said.
The Sharks kissed their SuperRugby chances goodbye last year by not qualifying for a home semi-final and Nkumane says they have to see the season through to its completion and nail down top spot because they have the depth in the squad to do that.
Nkumane believes the Stormers will bring confidence from being Currie Cup champions to the Southern Hemisphere competition, but saying goodbye to long-serving coach Allister Coetzee, who is bound for Japan at the end of the campaign, might serve to motivate them even more.
“The Stormers have a good mix, but winning the Currie Cup does not guarantee success in SuperRugby. Fortunately they found out early about Allister Coetzee leaving and if they have a good start, then that might give them something to play for,” Nkumane said.
Looking to the overseas teams, Nkumane tipped the usual strongholds of the Crusaders, Blues, Reds, Waratahs, Brumbies and Chiefs to be most competitive.